The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene - remarks by the President of the Human Rights Council Nazhat Shameem Khan at the launch of the Human Development Report 2020


30 March 2021

Excellencies, Dear Colleagues,

Bula Vinaka and Good Day.

At the outset allow me to thank the United Nations Development Programme, and the Human Development Report Office, for organising this event for the Official Presentation in Geneva of the 2020 Human Development Report.

I also wish to take this opportunity to highlight that the 2020 Human Development Report is the 30th Anniversary Edition of the Report.

In that regard, I offer my congratulations for an important and enduring publication.

Excellencies, Dear Colleagues,

The 2020 Human Development Report explores an important topic: the impacts of human activity on the environment and how those impacts on the environment, in turn, impact us.

Not only is this an important topic, it is a timely topic. Indeed, the Report notes that the COVID-19 pandemic is "a chance for societies to re-evaluate norms and for policymakers to take spirited steps towards social and economic recoveries that invest in healthier, greener, more equitable futures – ones that expand human freedoms while easing planetary pressures".[1]

It is for this reason that I am honoured to speak with you all today. We have an opportunity, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, to re-define our relationship with the environment in a manner that also promotes and protects human rights. In this regard, the Report provides valuable insights into the connection between human rights and the environment that are particularly valuable.

The Report rightly states, inter alia, that, and I quote, "supporting the agency and empowerment of disadvantaged populations – by respecting their human rights, increasing their access to resources and ensuring that they are represented and their voice are heard – can break the vicious cycle of planetary and social imbalances".[2]

Excellencies, Dear Colleagues,

The 2020 Human Development Report's insights regarding human rights is closely linked to the work of the Human Rights Council, beginning with the recognition that the human rights of persons in vulnerable environmental situations require particular attention during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the first lockdown last spring, the Council adopted by consensus a President's Statement that recognised the wide-range of human rights implications of the pandemic. Through this PRST, as we call it, the Council emphasised, inter alia, the importance of timely, equitable and unhindered access to medicines, vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, including for persons affected by natural disasters or climate change.

Furthermore, the Council mandated the High Commissioner for Human Rights prepare a report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the enjoyment of human rights around the world, including good practices and areas of concern.

The High Commissioner presented this report to the Council during the 46th session, which we concluded just last week, and I was very pleased to see that it included a number of recommendations related to the protection of environmental rights in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recovery from it. These recommendations included ensuring that any new investments to relaunch economies are "in accordance with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change", as well as ensuring that "all COVID-19 recovery policies… accelerate the transition to zero-emission economies in a manner that contributes to the realization of all human rights".

Excellencies, Dear Colleagues,

It is indeed true that human history is filled with natural cataclysms, conflicts and many other sorts of crises, but you would also agree with me that climate change and the COVID pandemic are among the worst scourges of our time. Ironically, they share the common factor of indistinctly affecting rich and poor countries, but with vulnerable populations suffering the most unfair and negative impacts. They also constitute two major obstacles to fully guaranteeing respect for the right to a decent standard of living and the right to development and they deprive populations of the enjoyment of their fundamental rights. Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic affect us all, but we are not impacted equally, as we do not have the same financial, technical and human means to face these crises and to protect ourselves.. It is, therefore, with a view towards social justice and human dignity that we shall continue advocating for a global economic recovery plan that matches ­up to the extent of the challenges while placing the respect for and protection of human rights at its core..

As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, the revitalization of our societies must be done in a human rights-based and environmentally-conscious manner.

Fortunately, the Human Rights Council has been addressing the intersection between human rights and the environment for some time.

For example, since 2014, the Council has adopted annual resolutions specifically on human rights and climate change. Each year this resolution takes a different thematic human rights focus, which have ranged from the adverse impact of climate change on the right to development to the importance of integrating a gender-responsive approach into climate policies. The resolution adopted by the Council last July focused on the adverse impact of climate change on the full and effective enjoyment of human rights by older persons.

And since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Human Rights Council, including its special procedure mandate holders, has shined a light on the intersection between the environment, the COVID-19 pandemic and human rights. For example, last September, the Special Rapporteur on the Implications for Human Rights of the Environmentally Sound Management and Disposal of Hazardous Substances and Wastes addressed the issue of a State's duty to prevent exposure to hazardous substances within the context of the global crisis rising from the COVID-19 pandemic in his annual report to the Council..[3]

This is just a small sample of the Council's work, which together with the Human Development Report 2020, provide a good base of knowledge for future action.

Excellencies, Dear Colleagues,

If I may, I will conclude on a personal note. As I stated earlier, I am Fijian. I know first-hand the devastating impact climate change is having on all human rights, be it civil, political, economic, social or cultural rights. Tragically, last year, this fact was underlined as Fiji suffered from two serious Tropical Cyclones.

What the Tropical Cyclones also underlined is the fact that to effectively prepare for and recover from the negative human rights impacts of climate change and all other environmental risks, we must ensure that a human rights-perspective is integrated into all future development actions. Only then will we be able to formulate and implement effective and ambitious development and environmental action that is grounded in the experience and the needs of the most vulnerable people, and especially of those most affected by the consequences of climate change, and which truly addresses the needs of all.

With this in mind, Excellencies and Dear Colleagues, I thank you all for contributing to what I know will be a fruitful and very important discussion.

Vinaka, I thank you.


[1] Page 10, "Human Development Report 2020 (The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene)".

[2] Page 68, "Human Development Report 2020 (The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene)".